Peace mission goes to Najaf Explosion kills 7, injures 35 and sets fire to building

Fighting in Najaf has overshadowed the national conference.
BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) -- Iraq's national conference sent a delegation bearing a peace proposal to Najaf today, hoping to end the standoff with radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, which has marred the gathering meant to be a landmark step toward democracy.
As the National Conference in Baghdad put together the mission, a mortar round exploded several miles from the gathering's venue, killing seven people and wounding 35, according to the Health Ministry.
It was the second deadly barrage in the capital since the conference began Sunday -- a reflection of the violence plaguing Iraq as its interim government struggles to show itself in control.
The blast on the busy, central Rasheed Street set a building on fire and smashed the front of a barbershop. Blood mixed with shards of glass on the street as firefighters were hosing charred cars.
Fighting in Najaf
Meanwhile, explosions and gunfire shook the streets of Najaf, 100 miles south of the capital, as clashes with al-Sadr's al-Mahdi army militia escalated today. U.S. tanks encircled the Old City, which the militia has made its stronghold, and U.S. troops entered the neighborhood.
In other violence, an Iraqi photographer working for Reuters news agency was shot in the leg during fighting in Najaf, journalists in the agency's Baghdad bureau said.
The photographer, who was not identified, was shot during a firefight between U.S. forces and fighters loyal to al-Sadr, journalists said on condition of anonymity.
The wounds were not life-threatening, and the photographer was being treated at a U.S. Army combat hospital, the journalists said.
Ohio soldier killed
On Sunday, Army Sgt. Daniel Michael Shepherd, 23, died in Ar Ramabi, Iraq, after his M2 Bradley Fighting Vehicle hit a homemade bomb, U.S. Army spokeswoman Martha Rudd said. He served with the Army's 1st Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment, and was based in Fort Riley, Kan. He grew up in Elyria, southwest of Cleveland.
His unit was due home in less than a month. Friends say he never got to see his infant son.
The Najaf fighting has overshadowed the National Conference, which was supposed to be a revolutionary moment in Iraq's democratic transformation, an unprecedented gathering of 1,300 Iraqis from all ethnic and religious groups for vigorous debate over their country's course.
It also was intended to increase the legitimacy of interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi's government, which is deeply dependent on American troops and money even after the official U.S. occupation ended.
But members of the conference decided to delay the gathering's main function -- electing a form of national assembly -- to give time for a peace mission to Najaf.
An eight-member team arrived in Najaf aboard U.S. military helicopters this afternoon. The peace proposal demands that al-Sadr's militia put down its weapons, leave holy shrines where they have taken refuge during the fighting and join Iraq's political process in exchange for amnesty.
'A friendly mission'
"This is not a negotiation. This is a friendly mission to convey the message of the National Conference," said delegation head Hussein al-Sadr, a distant relative of the cleric. "We want to change the Mahdi army into a political organization and to evacuate the shrine of Ali with the promise not to legally pursue those taking shelter there. This is what the government and all Iraqis want."
The mission to Najaf was plagued by embarrassing holdups. A large delegation of 60 conference members had intended to go in a convoy today to Najaf, 100 miles south of Baghdad. That trip was delayed as members waited seven hours for a security escort, then it was canceled when none emerged.
The conference then decided to send the smaller delegation.
Al-Sadr's followers have been battling U.S. troops from Najaf's vast cemetery and the revered Imam Ali Shrine since Aug. 5, when a 2-month old cease-fire broke down.
Al-Sadr aides said they welcomed the mission, but not the peace proposal.
"The demands of the committee are impossible. The shrine compound must be in the hands of the religious authorities. They are asking us to leave Najaf while we are the sons of Najaf," said al-Sadr aide, Sheik Ali Smeisim.
If al-Sadr agrees to stand down, the conference will have succeeded in turning a crisis into a startling, symbolic victory showing the potential power of communal solutions in post-Saddam Iraq.
If he rejects the peace deal, the conflict will have distracted attention from other pressing issues and damage conference organizers' efforts to project an optimistic image of national unity.
The Najaf violence "has really affected progress" at the National Conference, said one delegate, Ahmad al-Hayali.
The conference was to vote today on members of a national council that will serve as a watchdog over the interim government before elections expected in January. But delegates decided not to hold the vote until the peace mission returned from Najaf.
An explosion, reportedly from a mortar, shook the area near the conference venue in central Baghdad today. The gathering is under heavy security, seen as a possible major target for the 6-month-old insurgency.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan also has offered to play "a facilitating role" to help end the Najaf violence if all sides agree, U.N. Spokesman Fred Eckhard said Monday.
Also, Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Angelo Sodano told Italian state radio Monday that if official mediation were requested, the Vatican would "very willingly" provide it, adding that Pope John Paul II has never declined such requests.
Copyright 2004 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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